Big bears forage in British Columbia

By Sue Wallace

It is a perfect winter's day as the boat stops in British Columbia's spectacular Knight Inlet to watch for grizzly bears. Our guides, Howard Pattinson and his son Lindsay are experts on bears. They tell us to expect the unexpected.

Right on cue a big grizzly heads to the beach just in front of us to hunt for food - and everyone is mes-merised.

Looking a little lean after coming out of hibernation, the bear has only one thing on his mind - food - and starts turning over rocks. He pays us scant attention and carries on with his scavenging as cameras click madly.

Knight Inlet is set in the most spectacular scenery: majestic snow-capped mountains give way to steep cliffs covered in green cedar trees, a strip of rocky beach and then bright blue glacier-fed water.

But it is hard to take your eyes off the grizzlies as they lope around the beach.

You can't help feeling you would like to give them a cuddle but we are reminded they are wild animals and keep our distance.

Howard and Lindsay are both armed with bear pepper spray, just in case the bears become too inquisitive.

We stay on the boat and eat our lunch in the middle of the estuary so the bears do not associate food with humans.

Another bear appears not far away and Howard tells us it could be interesting, as bears like their own space.

But today the others are too hungry to worry and continue turning over boulders with ease, hunting for crabs, barnacles and mussels.

Knight Inlet is one of the largest fjords on the British Columbia coastline and Glendale Cove is renowned for its many grizzly bears. In peak season you can see as many as 50 bears hunting for salmon and feeding them to their cubs in the rivers and streams.

Many people fly by seaplane into the exclusive floating Knight Inlet Lodge and stay several days.

An alternative is to drive to the quaint town of Telegraph Cove on Vancouver Island, which has a population of 20, and from there book a day tour with Howard and end up at the same place.

We left the dock at 7am and the boat trip to Knight Inlet took about 90 minutes.

On the way a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins rode in our wake and we saw black bears on the low-tide beaches, bald eagles, and a river otter.

Two companies take visitors in for the bear watching and as we arrived the others moved on, so we had prime position.

After a while we moved further up the cove and saw five bears enjoying the spring sedge grasses in the river lowlands. You couldn't help thinking they really were having a picnic as they enjoyed the flush of spring growth.

We shared the boat with four Germans who visit Telegraph Cove every year to see the bears.

"You never get tired of watching them," said one. "Where else in the world could you witness this?"

As the snow melts, black and grizzly bears emerge from their hibernation dens on the mountains' slopes. Early May to June 15 is the mating season when you see some interesting interaction. The big bears chase the not-too-interested females until they finally surrender.

In early July newborn cubs scramble along beside their mothers.

Howard explained how protective the female bears are of their cubs. The mothers hide the babies from the big boars until the berries ripen in late June, then the little ones are led down into the excellent grizzly habitat of the river estuary.

In July the sighting rate drops to 70 per cent when the bears feast in the bush on ripe huckleberries, salmon berries and elderberries.

But we had a perfect viewing and saw about 10 bears.

From August 15 to 24 the salmon start arriving and the bears chase the fish around in the low-tide pools at the river mouth and have lots of fun. Viewing then is from special stands.

On our return we refuelled at Logan Cove, where happy hour starts every day at 5pm.

Then it was back to Telegraph Cove, tucked away on the eastern coast of northern Vancouver Island in one of the virtually untouched areas of North America.

The tiny sawmill and cannery community was important to the development of the North Island and has a rich history. The town is built on stilts and has a boardwalk connecting it to the mainland. Each of the cabins along the boardwalk has its own story, and legend has it a cougar was shot underneath one. The exteriors are painted bright blue or red and have been restored to their original condition.

The settlement got its name from a telegraph station that was established there in 1911. In the early 1920s, Albert Wastell helped to set up a Japanese salmon saltery and a sawmill was built to cut logs to build boxes for shipping the salmon.

But with the advent of cardboard boxes and the closure of the saltery, Wastell and partner Alec McDonald spent the Depression selling lumber in surrounding coastal communities.

They made it through the 1930s and business picked up when World War II provided the greatest demand. The population grew as workers took their families to live there and a tight-knit community evolved.

Today, Telegraph Cove is inundated with tourists in summer who come to fish and see bears and whales. We visited in May before the crowds arrived and it was perfect.

* Sue Wallace's visit was organised by Canadian Tourism and Responsible Travel.

Getting there

Fly with Air New Zealand to Los Angeles or San Francisco and on to Vancouver with Star Alliance code share partner Air Canada.

To get to Vancouver Island, catch a ferry from Vancouver's Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal to Victoria. The drive from Vancouver is about 45 minutes and the ferry crossing is just over an hour and a half. See website www.bcferries.ca

It is a five and a half hour drive on Highway 19 from Victoria to Telegraph Cove. You can also catch a Gray Line bus or fly to Campbell River and arrange transport from there.

Getting around

Driving is easy on Vancouver Island and Enterprise car rentals will deliver a car to your accommodation. See www.enterprise.com

Where to stay

Telegraph Cove Resort offers cosy cottages, with no phones or televisions but a great atmosphere. Visit www.telegraphcoveresort.com. The Killer Whale Cafe and Old Saltery Pub serve great fish and chips and are ideal places to swap bear stories.

Bear watching

Tide Rip Grizzly Tours conduct bear watching and salmon spawning tours. Visit www.tiderip.com

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